Naftali Cohn’s “The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis”

In an attempt at remaining sane during the present Israeli election cycle, I found myself reading Naftali Cohn‘s The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (although given some of the rhetoric voiced here by wannabe politicians over the past few days, one could argue that a book about the Temple is actually quite relevant to Israeli politics). The book, published in Penn Press’ “Divinations” series, attempts to tackle a rather large topic that has been growing in popularity in recent years: the place of the Temple in rabbinic thought.

Whereas author scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi‘s or Daniel Stoekl-Ben-Ezra have devoted studies to specific topics within Temple-related tractates, Cohn devotes his to the Mishnah’s Temple discourse as a whole; reaching the conclusion that the Mishnaic portrayal of the way in which the rituals were performed at the Temple comes to “claim authority for the rabbis” (pg. 120). Claiming authority over the Temple by depicting it as functioning in a rabbinic fashion is essentially a way for the Rabbis of the Mishnah to gain authority over their fellow Judaeans. Cohn explains that the authors of the Mishnah work on multiple fronts, chief among them being the insertion of the Great Court, the Sanhedrin, into the Temple complex, along with its proto-Rabbinic sages who are depicted as the ultimate deciders of Temple practice. Cohn also argues that the manner in which the Mishnah discusses how and where rituals were performed in the Temple is geared at giving authority to the Rabbis. I admit, I’m not well read in ritual theory, but I’ll note that Cohn’s use of it in his analysis of Temple practice may fill in some of what Meir Bar-Ilan missed in Rosen-Zvi’s monograph.

The last chapter of Memory is dedicated to a comparative study of the Mishnah’s Temple, and is entitled “The Mishnah in the Context of a Wider Judaean, Christian, and Roman Temple Discourse.” Cohn combs through a dazzling array of different of sources, such as Pseudepigraphic works, Christian literature, archaeological findings (specifically synagogues and coins), and Hellenistic sources in order to contextualize the Mishnah’s picture of the Temple. Such an attempt should be commended. It is no doubt important, and as Cohn shows, fruitful, to understand the Rabbis’ Temple discourse in such a way. For him, such an analysis proves that the memory of the Temple was a point of contention, and that it was exploited by different communities in their attempts at achieving authority during the Tannaitic period.

As noted, Cohn stresses throughout the book the place of authority in Rabbinic depictions of the Temple, but I’m not so sure a) how Temple discourse in the Mishnah really gives them more authority over their fellow Judaeans, and b) if this is really why the Mishnah (and rabbinic literature more generally) spends so much time discussing the Temple.

Beyond that, I think that before we can really even compare the rabbinic Temple discourse to that of other communities, the Mishnaic Temple narratives must first be understood in their more local context of Tannaitic literature. Such a contextualization should begin with an understanding of the how the narratives concerning the Temple found in the Mishnah relate to the Mishnah’s non-narrative sections. The vast majority of the Mishnah, including its discussion of the Temple, is not what most scholars define as “narrative.” Additionally, recent attempts at analyzing the Mishnah with an eye for genre have yielded interesting results, at times even pointing out that different layers of genre may contain various Mishnaic conceptions of a given set of laws. Maybe the hundreds of non-narrative sections of the Mishnah paint a very different image of the Temple than the narrative ones do? The inclusion of such information would also change how the comparison between the Mishnah and non-Rabbinic works would be performed: the very fact that Temple is discussed by these different groups would not be the only point of comparison, but rather, the differences in the details of the practices themselves (specifically in the earlier Qumranic material) would also need to be unpacked in order to shed light on alternative conceptions of the Temple.

Second, it is very possible that the image of the Temple found in the Mishnah differs from that of the Tosefta or Midrash Halakha. The Mishnah is not the sole Tannaitic text, and, therefore, the “Rabbinic” view of that period probably cannot be deduced from it alone. To be sure, Cohn often uses the Tosefta to better understand Mishnaic passages. At one point, he does more than that, accurately noting a few telling differences between the Mishnah and the Tosefta (pg. 47): the Mishnah never depicts sectarians as actually having the power to perform the ritual as they please, while the Tosefta does so on at least three occasions. Cohn ties this to the Mishnah’s depiction of a “powerful Court that has fully suppressed the sectarians,” a depiction that is absent from the Tosefta. It is very possible that Cohn is on to something here. Scholarship concerning the relationship between the Mishnah and Tosefta has slowly been moving from issues of relative chronology to issues of what may be termed ideology or outlook. This example may be added to the list, and there is a need to further tease out the differences between the idea of the Temple present in these two intertwined Tannaitic works. Similarly, it is very probable that treatment of works of Halakhic Midrash, which to the best of my knowledge are not used in the book at all, would further nuance the position of the Temple in Tannaitic thought.

More can be said, and no doubt will be. I don’t think that I have a better answer to questions like “why the Rabbis spend so much time discussing the Temple?” than Cohn does, although I do think that we have to work a little differently in order to respond to them more fully. Nonetheless, Memory marks a significant step in furthering the research into rabbinic conceptions of the Temple in that it forces us to evaluate the Rabbi’s discourse in the context of post-destruction Judaean society.

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One response to “Naftali Cohn’s “The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis”

  1. A really huge percentage of the entire Talmudic literature deals with Temple ritual and related matters, things no longer actually done in daily life after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This is an enormously important factum. To claim that this was merely a strategy by the Sages to stake a claim for political dominance in the post-Temple period seems to ignore the actually stated ideals of the Sages and to replace it with politics, a reductionistic and belittling trivialization. It also ignores the actual dominance of the Rabbis after the Temple’s destruction: no other significant religious group from the Temple period was left standing in Judea, and they were also dominant in the Diaspora. I.e., they took over the Great Sanhedrin from 70 CE onwards, so they had practical dominance already; the Sadducees disappear from view altogether, and the Essenes and Qumraners as well; and the Messianist Zealots only have a last desperate fling in the Bar Kokhba uprising.

    Why this extraordinary importance of the Temple rituals? Obviously because the Sages did not want the practices and their associated ideas to be forgotten; they were to be rehearsed again and again by the most learned, so that when the Temple was rebuilt, perhaps only in the messianic era (which they prayed would come soon), the entire Temple cult could be reestablished and the entire world healed. The Sages took with utmost seriousness the promise in the Mosaic Torah that Israel would be a “kingdom of priests,” and that this priestly function had a universal and world-redemptive function.

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